Book Review of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future

by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (Basic Books, New York, NY, 2009); 132 pages of text plus 66 pages of notes, ISBN 978-0-465001305-0.

Reviewed by Art Hobson

The rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider, says this book. Chris Mooney should know; his 2005 book The Republican War on Science analyzed an important and blatant example of this rift. The opening pages of Unscientific America note the nation's historical disdain of intellect as documented in Richard Hofstadter's classic 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a problem that's especially acute when it comes to science. The book notes the science-society rift in politics, the media, entertainment, and, most importantly, religion.

The authors largely blame scientists themselves for this rift, and look to scientists to lead us out of it. But scientists today tend to step out of their labs only long enough to blame the problem on others such as education or the media. The authors share C. P. Snow's concern, as expressed in Snow's much-quoted essay The Two Cultures, that science isn't being translated broadly into relevant social and cultural terms, and that this stems from compartmentalization of knowledge in science and in other fields. Today, science is walled off not only from the humanities (Snow's chief concern) but also from politics, the media, entertainment, and religion.

Unscientific America offers Carl Sagan as a foremost example of the kind of scientist that's needed. A successful researcher early in his career, Sagan quickly turned to broader issues of public education and scientific literacy. One of Sagan's more successful projects, for example, was the PBS television series Cosmos, called by Sagan's friend Stephen Jay Gould "the greatest media work in popular science of all time." Although Sagan won a goodly share of praise from scientists, the authors fault the scientific and academic community for failing to award him tenure at Harvard and failing to admit him to the National Academy of Sciences after he was nominated for membership in 1992. He was criticized for "oversimplification" in his scientific writings. Speaking as one who has read a lot of Sagan's writings, I find that he wrote with skillful and powerful accuracy, using non-technical language without mathematics. Unfortunately, for some scientists this kind of writing is synonymous with "oversimplification," and therein lies much of the cause of the science-society rift of which Unscientific America speaks.

One of Sagan's best known warnings comes from his final published book, The Demon-Haunted World:

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner of later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

In fact, what with global warming, superstition-driven terrorism, etc., it's blowing up now.

The book wisely remains focused on the dumbing down of American culture by anti-intellectual, conservative, and religious forces. As evidence, the authors cite their experience as participants in "ScienceDebate2008," a nonpartisan grassroots call for presidential candidates to debate science and technology policy on national television. But the project found its invitation declined by Clinton and Obama and ignored entirely by McCain. Meanwhile, political journalists nearly ignored science throughout the campaign, and the candidates managed to debate religious issues in religious forums.

The demise of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment at the hands of the partisan Gingrich Congress in 1995 is another example. In the words of a 2008 report on how members of Congress think about science, "most members seem to have little care about, interest in, or attention to technical and scientific matters, and to credible sources of information to guide Congress on [scientific] issues."

Another tragically important example is how the media bungled the most important science-related story of our time: global warming. The media mostly ignored the story until 2005, although scientists had been sounding the alarm since at least the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 1990. When the media did report on global warming, it was always in the "he said, she said" mode that bowed to industry and media interests by maintaining the fiction that science was seriously divided on this issue. It remains true today that, on global warming science, "the press is AWOL."

In Chapter 8, "Bruising Their Religion," the authors criticize the actions of the "new atheists," i.e. those such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens who forthrightly criticize religion for maintaining America's superstitions and anti-intellectual attitudes. The authors argue that "America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former." Furthermore, "Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning." Although I agree with these two quotations, I part company with the book on this issue. It seems to me that religion, or at least fundamentalist religion, is a major cause of the science-society split. This isn't the place for me to debate this point, but I don't see how the problem with fundamentalist religion can be resolved without direct confrontation.

The 2005 National Academy of Sciences report Rising Above the Gathering Storm noted a U.S. failure to produce enough scientists and engineers to keep us competitive for the long haul, and recommended dramatically bulking up K-12 science education. But Unscientific America notes that this recommendation is narrowly rooted. "Simply producing more scientists won't solve our cultural problems." The book laments the equations and formulas that public school students memorize, while these science students don't look at how science will transform the future world they will inhabit, never learning that science's most profound implications reach far beyond the scientific technicalities that science students are required to master, never becoming scientifically literate.

The solution, says this book, is that scientific and educational institutions, including universities, must redefine the scientists' role by rewarding endeavors that these institutions have long undervalued: public outreach, education of non-scientists, communication, and interdisciplinary education.

The authors document the trials and tribulations of U.S. science students in traversing undergraduate school, graduate school, and post-doc labor, only to find that, contrary to what one would expect from Gathering Storm's analysis, they are overeducated and have few job prospects. The proposed solution to both this "pipeline" problem and the scientific illiteracy problem is obvious: broaden the scientific mandate to include scientific literacy for all. Arm all science students with the skills to teach and otherwise communicate publicly relevant science, broaden public school science to emphasize scientific literacy for all non-scientists and all scientists (since scientists are not really scientifically literate today), and encourage public policy makers to create public-interest fellowships and jobs whose purpose is to connect science with society. In other words, instill in scientists the notion of public service.

Summarizing its prescription, the book's final chapter states "We must fundamentally change the way we think and talk about science education," and this means rethinking the education of scientists as well as the public school and college education of non-scientists. "We don't simply need a bigger scientific workforce: We need a more cultured one, capable of bridging the divides that have led to science's declining influence. …We must invest in a sweeping project to make science relevant to the whole of America's citizenry." I couldn't agree more.

Art Hobson is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and author of a scientific literacy textbook Physics: Concepts & Connections, now in its fourth edition. This review is loosely based on the author's paper “The surprising effectiveness of college scientific literacy courses” appearing in The Physics Teacher, October, 2008.

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